Tag Archives: spirit

What is Faith?

What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

-Morpheus played by Laurence Fishburne
from The Matrix (1999)

I thought about this quote as I was driving home this evening (as I write this) and wondering what happened between Monday and now. On Monday evening and into Tuesday morning, and even as far as this morning, something carried over from a new or rejuvenated sense of faith and spirituality. Then, as I was driving home, it was like a balloon popped and I could feel myself sinking back into my previous template, which is at a depth where contact with God is like a faint echo struggling to make its way through the cold deeps of a twilight ocean.

What’s stronger, something new or something old? Answer: something old. Something new is exciting in the moment, but what’s old, like old habits, have a much greater and firmer foothold on your life or, in this case mine.

To paraphrase Morpheus, “What is faith? How do you define ‘faith’? If you’re talking about what you can feel emotionally, what you experience in response to stimulating books on faith, on hearing rousing music with impassioned lyrics, then ‘faith’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

That’s a horrible realization and it was even more horrible that such a thought reminded me John MacArthur speaks against a faith based on sensation and experience. Of course, he goes in the opposite direction and believes in a faith based almost exclusively on the intellect and his version of Bible study, making him not unlike some Rabbis in some traditional corners of Judaism.

You’re a great one for logic. I’m a great one for rushing in where angels fear to tread. We are both extremists. Reality has brought us somewhere in-between.

-Captain James Kirk (William Shatner)
from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Apparently the 1990s were very good for movie quotes.

coastKirk and Spock seem to be polar opposites: an emotionalist always looking for his next adventure, and a logical rationalist, always seeking the calm of study, knowledge, and wisdom. But as Kirk pointed out, both of them are extremists. Reality (what is “real?”) is somewhere in the middle.

And so we arrive at attempting to define the essential elements of a life of faith. Certainly not just a stimulating book about a faithful man of God who could perform healing miracles, or music and lyrics that touch the emotions and hopefully the soul. Certainly not just the enthralling study of the Bible, of interesting commentaries, of Talmud and midrash.

Reality is somewhere in the middle because human beings are emotional and intellectual beings. Too much of either side of the equation leaves our faith woefully off-balance, and us teetering on the edge of plummeting into one abyss or another.

A little over two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post quoting First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Founder and President Boaz Michael saying that faith is a platform supported by three legs: the Spirit of the Lord, the Torah of Moses, and the Gospel of the Messianic Kingdom.

In 1 Corinthians 13:12-13, the apostle Paul speaks of another three “legs:” faith, hope, and love. It seems we are not complete as devotees of the God of Israel and disciples of Messiah unless we not only value multiple elements in a living faith, but we allow those elements to exist in balance relative to one another. Depending too much on any one “leg” for support, will likely find us about to fall in the opposite direction.

I’ve heard it said that it takes six-weeks to either make a new habit or break an old one. I’m sure that’s overly simplistic, but if you are trying to break an old, unwanted but familiar and relatively comfortable habit, six weeks can seem like a long time. After the initial excitement at any resolution, after a few days pass, the old and familiar assert their influence.

I suppose I could immerse myself in inspirational books and music, but that’s just swinging in another extreme direction and it won’t last. What I think will last is establishing a balance, realizing that there will be moments of disappointment and let down, moments when things will seem dry and uninteresting, and that those moments do not have to stand in the way of a new or renewed sense of the presence of God.

Some habits are good. Continuing to read and to study the Bible is good. Listening to faith-based music is good. Set times of prayer and “davening” from the Siddur is good. Reaching out to God, not only when He seems close, but when He seems far away is good.

Most people who are religious I think organize their activities into the holy and the secular. It’s holy to go to church and secular to go to work. It’s holy to sing a hymn and secular to sing a rock song from the ’60s. It’s holy to pray, and it’s secular to wish.

Leonard CohenThat’s the problem. From God’s point of view, we are all His creations and thus we all share some small part of the Divine. As people of faith, the awareness of that state should be present in us…in me. There really are no times or circumstances or tasks where God is not present. It’s just a matter of whether or not I chose to be aware of the presence during those times I deem “secular”

A momentary pause in the music doesn’t mean the song has ended. The end of a paragraph or chapter doesn’t mean the book is done. And the realization that I won’t always “feel” that God is near doesn’t mean God isn’t near. Faith is continuing to act faithfully even if the physical and spiritual world seems silent and empty.

Faith isn’t a feeling and it isn’t a thought. Faith is a habit or at least it’s supported by habits…praying, singing, reading the Bible, pondering God’s wondrous acts and wisdom, opening your cognition and emotions to God, even if He should choose not to fill them.

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!

-Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”

Faith is that moment when all is silent and void and yet there is still nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

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Your Young Men Will See Visions

Receiving the SpiritAnd afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Joel 2:28

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Acts 2:17

Are you a Christian? If you are, has this happened to you? Have you ever rendered a prophesy? I mean have you ever rendered a prophesy like in the days of the Prophets of Israel? Have you ever spoken in languages that you did not know? Have you?

No?

You should have…that is, if you received the Holy Spirit.

Let me explain.

In Acts 2:17, Peter is quoting the Prophet Joel to explain the following event:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. –Acts 2:1-4

During the festival of Shavuot (the celebration of the giving of the Torah at Sinai), the Holy Spirit came upon the core group of the Jewish disciples of Jesus and when it did, they were enabled to speak in languages they didn’t actually know. Many of the Jews from the diaspora heard the disciples speaking in their languages and were amazed. Some though, thought the disciples were drunk. Peter defended them, denying that they were intoxicated at nine in the morning, and then he quoted from the Prophet Joel to further illuminate the meaning of the event.

But all this had happened before:

So Moses went out and told the people what the LORD had said. He brought together seventy of their elders and had them stand around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took some of the power of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied – but did not do so again.

However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”

Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!”

But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” Then Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp. –Numbers 11:24-30

It may have been a bit of a stretch to expect the Jews of Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Egypt, and Rome, visiting Jerusalem for the festival of Shavuot in obedience to the commandment, to realize that the disciples were speaking through the power of God’s Spirit, but the most amazing thing was yet to come.

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised (Jewish) believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days. –Acts 10:44-48

Up to this point, Peter and the other Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah had witnessed the Spirit coming upon other Jews. It was a totally astonishing event to see the non-Jewish “God-fearers” also receive the Spirit in an identical manner. Christianity today tends to blow past just how amazing this was for the Jewish believers. For the first time, God’s Spirit became available to a people who were not of the Mosaic covenant. The Children of Israel no longer had exclusive access to God. The Gentiles could be saved!

But that’s not why I’m bringing this all up. I want to talk about the “accepting-the-spirit” experience recorded in Numbers and in Acts. In each case, the person receiving the spirit was suddenly (though temporarily) granted extraordinary powers, such as speaking the languages of other people groups and having the ability to render prophesy.

I ask again Christian, did that ever happen to you? Did you ever gain supernatural abilities when you came to faith? Why do I ask? Because it never happened to me. In fact, I don’t think I’ve met a single Christian who, upon accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior, was abruptly able to speak foreign tongues or render prophesies.

A fellow I used to know told me his “coming to faith” story and how the person at the “altar call” basically tried to force him to speak in tongues. My friend, through a number of events in his life, had come to faith in Christ. In a local church during an evening service, he answered the “altar call” and, with many others, he went up and met a man who prayed with him to receive the Spirit. One by one, the others who had gone up with him (apparently) received the Spirit and as time passed, the crowd diminished and the church started to empty.

But no matter how much he wanted to, my friend didn’t start speaking in supernatural languages. The person “guiding” him urged him on and even began to browbeat my friend.

DreamingI should mention at this point, that the person in question is a brilliant scholar and is fluent in several languages including Biblical Hebrew and Greek. He had these talents long before he came to faith.

Finally, out of desperation, my friend started speaking in the various languages that he already knew. This seemed to satisfy the Christian who was praying with my friend at the altar and, looking at his watch and mentioning that his wife was waiting for him in the parking lot, the man walked away and left my friend alone.

OK, not the ideal “conversion” story, but it does illustrate that some (but perhaps not all) churches expect when a person receives Christ and accepts the Holy Spirit, that they should have an experience similar to what we’ve read about in Acts 2 and Acts 10. As I’ve said though, neither my friend nor I…nor any other Christian I’ve ever met can say we gained access to temporary supernatural powers when we became believers.

I’ve never openly examined this matter before and asking this type of question is a departure from my usual sort of writings on this blog. But when you become a Christian, when you accept Jesus into your life, how do you know that the Holy Spirit comes upon you? Why don’t we prophesy? Why don’t we speak in “tongues”? Where are our visions? Where are our dreams?

Torah of the Night

In the nightThe Gemara extrapolates from the verse – “from night until morning” – that there is no other service that is performed specifically at night other than the Menorah. Ben Yehoyada suggests that the reason the service of the Menorah is specifically at night is that the Menorah alludes to Torah and the primary time to study Torah is at night when a person’s mind is clear and he is free of his daily responsibilities. This follows Chazal’s statement in Eruvin (65a) that the night was created for Torah study. This concept is also recorded in Shulchan Aruch where he writes that one must be more careful with the learning that he does at night than the learning that he does during the day. Mishnah Berurah further elaborates on the importance and value of studying Torah at night and writes that when Torah scholars study Torah at night it is considered as though they are performing the service of the Bais Hamikdash. Furthermore, the Divine Presence stands opposite those who study Torah at night.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Studying Torah at night”
Menachos 89

Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination
Silently the senses abandon their defenses
Slowly, gently night unfurls its splendor
Grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender
Turn your face away from the garish light of day
Turn you thoughts away from cold unfeeling light
And listen to the music of the night

Music of the Night
from “Phantom of the Opera”
by Andrew Lloyd Webber

If you consider “night” to be any time the sun isn’t shining in the sky, then this teaching certainly fits onto the foundation upon which I laid this blog and what Rabbi Tzvi Freeman at Chabad.org presents here:

When you get up in the morning, let the world wait. Defy it a little. First learn something to inspire you. Take a few moments to meditate upon it. And then you may plunge ahead into the darkness, full of light with which to illuminate it.

A continuation of the commentary of Menachos 89 seems to support this idea, which works well for me as an early riser.

Mishnah Berurah writes that according to Kabbalists the primary time for Torah study is from chatzos until the onset of the morning. Shulchan Aruch HaRav writes that at the very least one should arise before morning to learn for some period of time at the end of the night.

Other Poskim support the opposite viewpoint, advocating for Torah study in the evening and then reciting the Tikun Chatzos before retiring. From an outsider’s perspective, it might be the difference between being a morning person and a night person.

For me, it’s helpful to start the day pondering God. Each day in an ordinary work week has its fair share of challenges and disappointments and, like a house, how or if it will stand depends on the solidity of the foundation. To build on “the Rock”, so to speak, means your “house” has a better chance of weathering storms. I suppose that’s why I created “Morning Meditations” rather than “Evening Meditations”.

ShavuotAt sundown this evening, the festival of Shavuot begins (at the end of the Omer count), which commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Children of Israel at Sinai. It is one of two times of year (the other is Simchat Torah) where God’s gift of the Torah to the Jewish people is specifically recognized and celebrated.

Just a few days ago, I wrote a blog post regarding my small understanding of the Torah. To continue from that beginning, the Torah is the illustrative force in the life of the Jewish people and it defines them as who they are, why they exist, and their specialness in the eyes of God. Since the days of Moses, “the Torah was to go forth from Zion and the Word of God from Jerusalem” (paraphrasing Micah 4:2) and even traditional Jewish sages admit that Christianity has been one vehicle by which the principles and teachings of God have reached an unbelieving world. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Shavuot and Pentecost, the observance of the giving of the Holy Spirit to Christ’s disciples in Jerusalem, happen on the same day.

This should be a night of joyous celebration as we let ourselves fully realize how God has abundantly reached out to humanity with His love, His wisdom, and His mercy. Both Jew and Christian can consider themselves greatly blessed by all that God has done for them; what God has done for us all.

But my greatest joy is not in singing or eating or in partaking of any other outward celebration with people, but in arising early each morning, before the sun begins to lighten the eastern sky, and alone in the silence, opening the pages of the Bible, delaying the start of day for a tiny march of minutes, while I pray, thank God, and then meditate upon His Word, letting it illuminate the darkness of the night.

At Mount Sinai, tradition tells, there was no echo. Torah penetrates and is absorbed by all things, because it is their essence. There is no place where it does not apply, no darkness it does not illuminate, nothing it cannot bring alive. Nothing will bounce it back and say, “Torah is too holy to belong here.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Penetrating Wisdom”
Chabad.org